Enter the Weighted Blanket

Summer break has officially been in effect for seventeen days. The usual end of year overstimulation/overbooked/house descending into hoarder chaos never really let up since we plunged directly into two weeks of various day camps and were getting up even earlier than during school.  I was shuttling my three plus others, coordinating ride shares, packing lunches, trying to cram in quality Mom-kid time with the one kid I had home each week, working on my run streak, tackling revoltingly filthy camp clothing and gnarly sneakers and then trying to usher all the overtired kids to bed then lying wide awake myself.

This week is the first one I have all three kids home with nothing scheduled and it occurs to me that what I’ve been struggling with the last few months is kind of being amplified by being the sun to three needy planets who are orbiting 24/7. I have sat down ten times to write and immediately been bombarded with requests for snacks, complaints of being bored, squabbles over Fortnite, requests to go somewhere, pleas for assistance with some random lost item that has suddenly become vitally important to a childs’ very existence. You know, the usual.  And it hits me that motherhood, even as my kids are getting older is still the toughest job there is and one I struggle mightily with when it comes to BOUNDARIES. It will take all you have and then ask for more and it’s a breeding ground for exhaustion and resentment if we allow it. Which brings me to towels.

Imagine a Turkish towel. The magical kind found in fancy hotel rooms that most of us can only dream about but have maybe experienced once in a lifetime. Baby chick soft, deliciously thick loops of perfectly fluffy cotton that envelop you and magically suck the water off your skin. You wrap yourself in it like a giant hug. That’s how I envision self-care.  The best, softest, most decadent kindness you can give to yourself.  And you know what my self care has been lately, at least the last six months as I am juggling single parenting and major change? Like an OD green Army issued bath towel.  If you are unfamiliar with what this is, it’s a horrible brownish green towel issued to every recruit during in-processing.  It is about half the size of a regular bath towel. It is scratchy like coarse grade sandpaper, it is utterly non-absorbent, it barely covers even your most essential parts and it looks like something your grandpa would use in the garage to mop up oil or paint spills, then throw in a dusty corner to dry into some kind of stiff crunchy folds.

What I can’t seem to get though my very slow-learning brain is WHY on earth, when I have experienced the Turkish towel would I consciously choose the Army towel? Yet that is what Moms are doing right now in this culture. We give our best to everyone, give until empty, bitterly laugh off the exhaustion, fiercely love our kids and then all get together and bemoan the fact that  we are so so tired and unappreciated and how moms give and give and all we get is the crappy towel. No wonder a glass of wine or five sounds appealing. After all, billions of dollars are spent in advertising telling us this is true. Just open your eyes and see the messages we are bombarded with any time we go into a funky boutique. The pink wine glasses, the funny tea towels all saying that Moms need wine: “I drink because my children cry” is the battle cry of the modern American mom these days. I may have removed alcohol from the equation 846 days ago but I still fight against the old internalized messages.

But the truth, (which no one is hiring a plane to fly a banner down the beach with) is that we don’t need to numb or take the edge off or distract ourselves from the real pain that is mothering without a break. We need an actual break. Real self-care: deliberate moments of peace wrapped in a Turkish towel of our own design. Yet somehow the message is that a Mom taking a real time out, to go to a museum alone, going for a long run or tucking herself up in a corner with a book is somehow selfish.. But add a glass of wine or a beer to that then, somehow it’s OK. After all, we live in a culture that praises selflessness, the Pinterest “Moms who do it all” and then blatantly encourages women to self medicate with alcohol when they realize they have lost themselves somewhere along the line.  Don’t look inside, don’t question whether this is killing you, just drink up. All the fun Moms are doing it.  Unless you can’t handle your booze or endanger your kids because you went too far and then you are a worthless piece of trash that thousands of online commentors would burn at the stake. What a mess.

Real self care looks different for each of us.  Some need meditation and essential oils, some need to pick up some heavy weights and listen to loud techno. Others need to write poetry or bust out their old paints or take long walks and others enjoy being in the middle of the bustle of a big city or need join a roller derby team like they’ve always dreamed of. Others need to do hot yoga and others need to reaquaint themselves with long-lost hobbies. What appeals to me might not to you, but we need to get more creative about what a time out or self care is. Drinking ethanol is not a time out or a break. It’s slowly poisoning yourself and basically guaranteeing that none of your aspirations regarding yourself will ever come to pass. It’s a very costly trip to nowhere. You can’t smash the patriarchy or write that book or finish that degree or start that clothing line or be a woman of integrity in your life if you are letting alcohol drive the bus. It’s just that simple and that hard and going against so much overt programming is tough but when you get to the other side it is crystal clear.

I am revisiting the idea of self-care since my old pattern of swinging wildly from manic to exhausted is so easy to fall back into. I have found a small group of people to hold me accountable this summer. I have set some small goals which I will begin to implement this week, actually starting right now as  twenty minutes ago I announced to my offspring that I was going to my room to write and unless there is blood squirting from someone’s eyeholes or the house is on fire, I am not to be disturbed for one hour. My list is small and I think do-able, and I had to consciously reel in my perfectionist overstriving tendencies.

The list:

Be creative–either writing or art, a minimum of 30 minutes daily

Exercise/ move body every day without excuse (I’m doing a run streak challenge right now to jump start this goal and it’s been eye-opening to say the least. I’m on day 37/38)

Declutter for 10-15 minutes

Coffee and quiet time in the morning–work on incorporating meditation into daily routine

Go to bed earlier (moving bedtime back 10-15 minutes at a time).

And that’s it for now. No massive ten year plan, no ultramarathon or Ironman training (which my squirrel brains think is a great idea because then I can just keep moving instead of pausing). Instead, I chose simple, soul filling things that if I’m honest, I CAN find time to do. It may mean letting something else go and that grates on my need to control things, but I’m getting there.

The last time I wrote, I was thinking about lobsters and what we do when our shells get too tight and I decided I needed some help with leveling up.  Therapy has been like shedding a shell every single week.  I feel raw, vulnerable and self-preserving. I feel off-balance and in pain. Like I’m some kind of evolving Pokemon with bewildered anime eyes. But I recognize that this is pain with a purpose. Sitting in my old patterns and staying stuck was pain for no reason. The reasons I haven’t wanted to go are still there but I know deep in my marrow, that if I’m going to transform, put things to rest and move forward, this is necessary. It has been painful, surprising and I’ve been astounded at how utterly un-self aware I am in some areas. My second session we were talking about a past event (my therapist specializes in substance abuse and trauma and has been amazing) and she stopped me and said “what just happened” And I said “what do you mean?”She replied “your eyes changed and you seemed to check out for a few seconds.”  And I said “Oh, I think I’ve always done that when I think about tough things.”

Some more conversation and questions passed and we came to the conclusion that I dissociate.  I always assumed everyone does that. I mean, doesn’t everyone leave their body when things are too intense? It’s a great skill as an ER nurse– just watch yourself from a distance, no muss no fuss. Turns out, NOPE.  Most people do not do this. Traumatized brains do this. After my last session she mentioned that it’s ok to leave some of what we are talking about there in the room. She wants me to say it, feel the emotion and then let it go. She told me ” I smudge after every session”. The old me would have thought that was a bunch of woo woo malarkey but I smiled and said “not sure there’s enough sage in the world for all this crap” and she laughed. Some days I wish I could just roll around in a field of sage and not have to do the hard work.

The other component that I’ve been working on is sleep. I remember the early days   when I couldn’t imagine ever sleeping again but then at about four months sober I was finally experiencing natural, non passed-out, no 3 am sweaty frantic wake ups sleep and  after that for the most part I had deep, dreamless sleep where I woke up feeling rested and ready to go (this is one of the miracles of recovery people go on and on about. With good reason). Once I started therapy my sleep went out the window. Restless, tossing, like my body was working through all the things I was thinking through in my “homework”. Vivid nightmares, fighting and terror, waking exhausted left me irritable and tired during the day.

My therapist recommended a weighted blanket and said it’s great for PTSD and anxiety. I was initially wary due to the expense (they are pricey) and worried that being claustrophobic and not really a touchy person that it would be suffocating and make me panicky. But I read some reviews and ordered a mid price one on Amazon and the first night I slept like a rock.  And the second.  And just about every night after that. It has been a game changer. The second I climb under,  I can feel my overstimulated, buzzing nerve ending switching from crazy to “chill.” The weight of it stimulates deep pressure points and reminds me in an odd way of my old Army body armor. I had always found the weight and pressure of my flak vest to be strangely calming.  I look forward to the moment at the end of each day when I’ve been tested and pushed to my limits with my kids when I can climb into bed, pull it over me and exhale. It’s like a literal “off” switch. It’s not chemical or aritificial and I’ve been grateful for the restoration that real sleep brings. So, add my name to the list of believers. Definitely worth every penny and lives up to the hype.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of work to be done, including actually staying in my body. Which sounds utterly ludicrous to write.  Perhaps I should add that to my list. But what I’m trying to get at is that in the midst of doing hard things: parenting, getting sober, exorcising demons, it’s vital to replenish and support ourselves. For me, it’s making little self-care to do lists, going to therapy and obsessing on my weighted blanket and the deep sleep it provides.  Those of us who struggle with addiction and are relatively new to recovery tend to have buckets of shame, an idea that we deserve to be punished in some way. But the opposite it true.  We need and deserve to be healed. The work of recovery is just that: WORK.  What if we approach it like we are elite athletes? We do the training and stretch and break down the muscles, then provide the optimum healing environment. Hydration, rest, nutrition. In active recovery, we do the same, in a way that re-integrates mind, body and soul. No more scratchy towels and martyrdom. No more burning the candle at both ends to avoid looking at the pain, no more poison down our throats because we’ve bought into a dangerous lie. But real self-care. Which allows us to be able to give to those around us from a place of fullness and not from an empty well.

Carry on, friends.

Embrace the suck

Last week I celebrated 200 days without alcohol. It was at the end of a few stressful weeks of bounced checks and crazy shifts at work and hard family issues and I happened to glance at the calendar and noticed a shaky “200” written in the margin of my day planner. I had written it on my last day one when my hands were shaking and I felt physically wrecked. I look back at it now as a sign that I really was done with the toxic merry go round of drinking. Though I had just the smallest flicker of hope, it made me count and look ahead.

Gradually, as I’m settling into this new sober life, it has become less about not drinking and more about building something: a total overhaul of my neural wiring and developing new habits.  It means that I have been systematically (well, more erratically, this is after all me we are talking about) examining and removing things and also trying to no longer avoid or deny painful things.  It all started getting crystal clear that in order to get to “the other side” and the transformation I long for that I need to dive into the pain.  Which sounds so lovely and poetic but is actually terrifying and sucky.

Our modern world gives us a million ways to distract ourselves from what IS.  We numb, deny, lie to ourselves, avoid, procrastinate, and bury our heads in our I-Gods (to quote a friend). Anything to avoid taking a cold, hard, clinical look at our patterns and motivations.  But I’m discovering in sobriety that I have to do that in order to move forward. It’s scary. There’s years of crap buried under my carefully crafted persona of Teflon warrior, the tough woman who everyone thinks can handle anything that is thrown at me.  I’ve bought into this narrative as much as others have propagated it, like the fact that they call me the Ginja (ginger ninja) at work and the fact that I’ve been voted most likely to survive the Zombie apocalypse two years running in our ER competition. (Little did everyone know that I would have had to drag 5000 boxes of wine along for my survival stint).

So, this got me thinking about what it means to be a true warrior.  There’s lots of sobriety lingo tossed around and a lot of it reminds me of warrior slang from my Army days. War is risky, and all-consuming in every facet. The warrior slang is a language of shared suffering and phrases of discipline become second nature and rituals make the difficult things more bearable. Sound familiar? As I was talking to sober friends about the last few weeks of life just totally slamming me, with one ludicrous challenge after another, I actually said, “You know what? I’m just going to embrace the suck.”

It’s actually a kind of zen concept when you think about it. When we try to run away from our reality, or what is truly occurring (with drugs, alcohol or other escapes), we create suffering.  It’s that yoga concept of that which we resist grows stronger.  When we say “embrace the suck” while deployed, it’s a recognition that “yes, this situation is terrible, but we are going to deal with it.” The only way to get through a crap day in the Army is to embrace the challenging, sucky experiences because ignoring them or denying them is literally impossible.  You can’t check out mid-battle or you die. Or your buddy does. The same is true in early sobriety.

We have to do the dirty work with a good attitude.  Or maybe a bad attitude some days is all we can muster but the idea is forward progress. Not allowing our situations to control our attitude. Because pain is inevitable.  Recovery means facing the demons I’ve been running from so long that they’ve become fearsome (the longer I try to rationalize away the problem, the bigger it grows.) Doing nothing prolongs the pain and the fear of the unknown crippled me for years. Even if I’m creeping forward, I’m still moving forward and that is just a daily decision. To get up and do the work.

One of the amazing, wise friends I’ve met in sobriety challenged me a few months back to think of myself as an athlete in training, both in my life and in how I approach my sobriety.  And that had me thinking about how I endure physical pain and the mechanisms that I’ve learned over time to deal with it.  With running, or yoga or any other sport, there is a part of us that embraces the pain, knowing that as we push up that hill, or hold that plank that we are advancing towards a goal.  We beat the pain with self talk and checklists.  ” Am I controlling my breathing, how is my posture, am I over striding, can I relax my tight shoulders?” etc.  Some things are beyond our control, and others are not.

I’m trying to apply the same principles to facing my fears and the uncomfortable aspects of early sobriety.  Or at least I was.

So, I started this blog post last week. Was fleshing out these ideas, feeling pretty darn good.  I envisioned my sobriety like a fortress I was building on a hill, brick by brick. I was finding my groove, in spite of stresses and work and life stuff.  Most days passed without a single thought of drinking. I’ve been immersed in self-improvement, self-care, healthy habits and mindfulness. I even started meditating. Yep. You read that right. So when I uttered the words ” I’m just going to embrace the suck”, I’m not sure what I summoned other than an opportunity to do just that.

Perhaps I was just getting too comfortable with my routines, and maybe focusing too much on one or two particular sober tools but, within 24 hours of saying those words out loud, I lost my two biggest ones.  My phone basically had a seizure and died after updating to a new operating system. I was phoneless for three days, which meant I was cut off from my small group of sober friends who are more like sisters. I lost all my contact information and all my photos from my first ever sober summer with my kids. For me, sobriety is all about connection, and I depend on hearing hard truths and giving/getting encouragement daily from other alcoholics kind of like I depend on air. With one fell swoop, it was like I was back in 1992 from a technology standpoint.  But, I still had my other “pillar” of sobriety. I could still get out and burn off my crazy with exercise, right?

Well, the day after my phone went belly-up, I fell rock climbing and broke my foot. (Trust me, that’s not nearly as sexy or adventurous as it sounds). I’m out of commission for six to eight weeks.

Any cockiness I had, any swagger about being ready to “dive into pain” or whatever, has been sucked away by the SUCK.

What seemed like a great idea a few days before became almost laughable as I was crutching around with a throbbing foot with a constant internal dialogue of “embrace it? Who am I kidding? I’m an alcoholic. We run from pain. We numb it. We kill ourselves slowly in order to not feel it. Regular life? Kids, bills, crazy hours at work etc. I can embrace that, I think, maybe after 6 1/2 months of practice. But this? Cut off from my support? How am I going to work and pay bills with a broken foot? And NO outlet for my crazy? This is going to get ugly. I want a drink.”

As another lovely friend pointed out to me yesterday after I finally had a working phone, it’s time to expand my tool belt. She said, “Maybe this is the universe’s way of saying ‘Wen, you’ve mastered sobriety with two main tools.  Now go out and find others that work too.'” And she’s totally correct. As much as I want to stomp my non-broken foot and whine “but I like what I was doing. It was working for me. I don’t want to get all YODA-y anymore and say crazy things out loud like when the student is ready the master appears. I want to just keep running and doing what feels cozy. I want my La Croix water and my podcasts and to stay in my bubble where it’s safe.”

That’s just not an option. So, the only choice I have is to do what I set out to do: embrace the suck.

Which means that I have a chance to do a CTRL+ALT+Del in the middle of my first sober year.

Clean slates are good, right? Lost contacts means new contacts, lost pictures means I have to trust my memory again. Putting myself out there in the middle of this, not from a perspective of having moved through it feels like trying to shine a light while my lighthouse is still only half-built. But maybe that’s what needs to happen.

My fears about being found out as a fraud, as a weak person really are unfounded.  I’m doing this every day. I’m in the company of others who are doing it too.  Even if we stumble some days or fall completely off the rock face and have to get up, bruised and bleeding.

I will take the pain of having to be stretched and learn new things over the soul-pain of active drinking any day. I don’t have answers. But if you are considering being done, of trying things that scare you, of giving up the “comfort” of alcohol, wondering how in the world you will ever feel your feelings without being blown away, take heart.  While I am gimpy and bruised and a little bewildered, I can still continue to hope and look ahead.  Because I have found others who tell me it’s possible.  It’s possible to change your entire life.  I’m doing that. It’s possible to grow, even if you break your foot and bounce checks and have to deal with things that would have driven you to numb and obliviate yourself with booze just a few months ago. You will find yourself continuing to get up every day and living in just that day. Because I’m doing it. And if I can, then so can you.

For today, that means enforced rest:  icing and elevating my foot and watching the rain outside while I try to find words and make sense of things.

So stay tuned, friends.  I’m just getting started. Again.